The conversations surrounding sexual assault have been increasing over the years. Those who have lived these experiences are coming forward and telling their stories, sometimes years later. Because of this, we are learning the reality of what many women and men have faced.

Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And 1 in 5 women have experienced rape or attempted rape. For some, the long-term pain continues. Of women who were raped, 30 percent were found to have PTSD. And 13 percent have attempted suicide.

As the visible wounds of sexual assault heal, the oftentimes unseen mental health impact will linger. That’s why it’s so important to understand what individuals are going through, and how you can help them.

How can I help someone who has been sexually assaulted? What should I say?

Encourage them to seek help. Offer to be there for any of the things they might be going through, like going to the hospital or police.

But also, be patient as they open up. Listen to them. Believe them. And be supportive.

When someone has been sexually assaulted they feel very vulnerable. They are often afraid they will not be believed or that they will be blamed for the assault. One of the best things you can do is acknowledge how difficult it was to say something and that you are honored they trusted you enough to talk about what was done to them.

Try saying:

  • “I am so sorry this was done to you.”
  • “This was not your fault.”
  • “I’m honored you trust me and told me this.”
  • “What do you need the most right now? How can I help?”
  • “Would you like me to take you to the hospital for an exam?” (If the assault happened within the last 10 days.)

There are also things you should avoid doing:

    • Don’t say “I can’t believe that person would do such a thing.” It implies you do not believe the sexual assault occurred.

  • Do not ask for details.
  • Don’t try to “fix it.”
  • Don’t minimize it.
  • Don’t ask “why” questions. They are interpreted as blaming. Fear of being blamed is a huge part of why victims/survivors do not seek help.

What happens when someone goes to the hospital for an exam for sexual assault?

A person who comes to the hospital after a sexual assault has a brief assessment and is placed in a private room within a few minutes. Sexual assault is a priority and patients are given a room quickly.

Then, a nurse or doctor will examine the patient to see if they have medical needs that require immediate attention. After the exam, a trained expert in sexual assault is called in with the patient’s permission. If a patient is OK with it, a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) – which is what I am – is paged. We are nurses who are trained specifically for these situations. While all hospitals in the Twin Cities are served by a SANE program, Regions Hospital is the only facility that will not charge the patient for a medical screening exam.

We know that the patient has just experienced something that is traumatizing. So we make sure that our approach is sensitive and understanding. We also continue to keep them informed as we go on with the exam. Patients are offered options throughout the process and may decline any portion of the exam. A SANE’s job is to help patients regain control of their lives. SANEs are trained to:

  • Listen while a patient tells the details of the assault. A SANE provides support and gives suggestions for ongoing care for both physical and mental health. The patient is treated with respect and compassion at all times.
  • Conduct a physical exam, looking for injuries or pain. We document injuries in writing and with photographs. We can also assess if the patient needs medications to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
  • Collect evidence. Typically this involves cotton swabs to collect samples from parts of the body that may contain DNA from the assailant. Photographs may also be taken with the patient’s consent.
  • Give detailed instructions about how the patient can take care of themselves once they leave the Emergency Center.
  • Call a sexual assault advocate to come to the hospital to provide support during this difficult time. Advocacy agencies are county-based, so hospitals may be served by different agencies, depending on the county where the hospital is located. Within the HealthPartners organization, services are provided by:
  • Help the patient make a police report if they wish. A police report is not required to receive an exam by a SANE. A police report may also be made in the days after an exam, if the patient chooses.

Medical care is very important. Regions Hospital Emergency Department offers acute sexual assault exams up to 10 days after the sexual assault. The county where the assault occurs pays for the examination at Regions. Antibiotics and medications for STIs given in the hospital are also not billed to the patient if they receive their exam at Regions Hospital. If there is medical care required for injuries, HIV prevention or other health concerns, this is billed to the patient’s insurance.

How is someone’s mental health affected after an assault?

Sexual assault can affect someone’s mental health, either short-term or long-term. This can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD and even suicidal feelings. Patients who have a history of a mental illness may be even more adversely affected.

If someone who has been sexually assaulted already has a therapist, it is a good idea for them to make an appointment with them. I also recommend Ramsey County SOS Sexual Violence Services as being a great resource when it comes to finding a therapist who is knowledgeable of the dynamics of sexual assault. It is a good idea to stay connected with an advocacy agency after sexual assault, as feelings may continue to come up months or even years later as a person heals.

What resources are available?

There are many services in Minnesota that can help someone with short-term and long-term guidance.

There have been a lot of people coming forward to say they were sexually assaulted many years ago. Why is this happening?

Sexual assault is a very traumatic event in someone’s life. They may feel like they can’t tell anyone when it happens. And they may be afraid they will not be believed. Often, people blame themselves and worry they did something to cause the assault to happen. But no one deserves to be sexually assaulted. The shame associated with sexual assault belongs to the perpetrator – not to the victim/survivor.

It may take years for someone to be able to talk about their experience. Hearing others talk about what was done to them can help someone feel they are not alone. Just because someone did not tell about their experience right away does not mean it did not happen.

Hearing or reading about someone else’s experience may also bring back feelings of vulnerability, however, and it is important to address those feelings. Next steps would include:

One of the hardest things for someone to do is open up. Starting a conversation about sexual assault or other mental health conditions can be tough – in large part due to shame or stigma. But talking is the first step to getting better. Our Make It OK campaign works to end the stigma that could stop someone from getting the mental health treatment they need. Sign the pledge and do your part to Make It OK.